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  • Tara Albright DPT

A background on Cupping

Many people remember several years ago when Michael Phelps showed up to the Olympics with what looked like giant bruises all around his shoulder. This brought many questions to the minds of people watching and lead to the broad topic of what is cupping. In this blog we will try to give a broad overview of that cupping is and why it may be beneficial for patients. Let’s start with the basics.

What is cupping and where did it come from?

  • Cupping is a very effective massage technique, where suction is utilized, to assist in the lifting, loosening, and healing of impacted or injured tissue. It came from several hundred years ago as an ancient medicine practice which merged into western medicine in 1800s. It has been given new life in the recent medical practice where people are seeking less medication and more hands on techniques to assist in their healing.

What tools are used in cupping and how do they work?

  • There are various tools that can be used to create the suction for the cupping procedure. Some are made of silicone and easily mold to allow for quick placement and release. Others come with a small pump to provide the suction mechanism. Both options may be used for treatment depending on the area or the therapist. Often it depends on the tools that are available in the clinic. Silicone cups are more commonly used

These tools are used to create suction and lead to the following tissue changes:

  • Passively stretches tissue for improved ROM

  • Increases blood flow to area and heats tissue

  • Allows for movement of fluid which can decrease edema

  • Increases nutrient rich blood flow to the damaged/injured tissue.

The benefits that come from this treatment are numerous but can be summarized by saying that the suction can lead to tissue remodeling or healing, assists in breaking down scar tissue, and stimulate mechanoreceptors to decrease pain.

What to expect with treatment:

  • The therapist will apply the cups to the areas of tension and pain and may either leave them in place for a little while or move them around to release the tissue. Both have tissue healing properties and pain relief properties and usually both techniques are combined in a treatment session. It is important to communicate with the therapist if you are feeling pain or too much pressure and treatment can be tailored accordingly.

  • Due to the nature of using suction to move tissue and change fluids you may have some skin reddening and possible light purple circles may show up after treatment. These mimic a bruise in looks and features, but should not be painful. Appearance of these circles is no unusual, but be sure you communicate with your therapist regarding your recovery following treatment.

How do I know if cupping is right for me?

  • Cupping is just one tool in a physical therapists tool bag, but often requires some training before use in clinic. If you are interested in cupping you should discuss with your therapist and see if it is a good option for your treatment. If that therapist is not trained in cupping, they may suggest you see another provider who is.

Is there any time when cupping is not appropriate? Cupping is not recommended in the following cases:

  • When there is an open wound in the area

  • Following a very acute injury

  • Over a tumor or are of known cancer

  • Over area of known DVT

  • Anywhere where skin integrity is compromised

Hopefully, this information has opened you up to another treatment option and answered some questions regarding what cupping is and how it may be beneficial. If you are interested in cupping let your provider know and see if it is right for you.

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